A chatterbot (also known as a talkbot, chatterbox, Artificial Conversational Entity or similar) is a computer program which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods. Such programs are often designed to engage in small talk with the aim of passing the Turing test by fooling the conversational partner into thinking that the program is a human. However, chatterbots are also used in dialog systems for various practical purposes including customer service or information acquisition. Some chatterbots use sophisticated natural language processing systems, but many simply scan for keywords within the input and pull a reply with the most matching keywords, or the most similar wording pattern, from a textual database.
In 1950, Alan Turing published his famous article "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", which proposed what is now called the Turing test as a criterion of intelligence. This criterion depends on the ability of a computer program to impersonate a human in a real-time written conversation with a human judge, sufficiently well that the judge is unable to distinguish reliably—on the basis of the conversational content alone—between the program and a real human. The notoriety of Turing's proposed test stimulated great interest in Joseph Weizenbaum's program ELIZA, published in 1966, which seemed to be able to fool users into believing that they were conversing with a real human. However Weizenbaum himself did not claim that ELIZA was genuinely intelligent, and the Introduction to his paper presented it more as a debunking exercise:
[In] artificial intelligence ... machines are made to behave in wondrous ways, often sufficient to dazzle even the most experienced observer. But once a particular program is unmasked, once its inner workings are explained ... its magic crumbles away; it stands revealed as a mere collection of procedures ... The observer says to himself "I could have written that". With that thought he moves the program in question from the shelf marked "intelligent", to that reserved for curios ... The object of this paper is to cause just such a re-evaluation of the program about to be "explained". Few programs ever needed it more.
ELIZA's key method of operation (copied by chatbot designers ever since) involves the recognition of cue words or phrases in the input, and the output of corresponding pre-prepared or pre-programmed responses that can move the conversation forward in an apparently meaningful way (e.g. by responding to any input that contains the word 'MOTHER' with 'TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR FAMILY'). Thus an illusion of understanding is generated, even though the processing involved has been merely superficial. ELIZA showed that such an illusion is surprisingly easy to generate, because human judges are so ready to give the benefit of the doubt when conversational responses are capable of being interpreted as "intelligent". Thus the key technique here—which characterises a program as a chatbot rather than as a serious natural language processing system—is the production of responses that are sufficiently vague and non-specific that they can be understood as "intelligent" in a wide range of conversational contexts. The emphasis is typically on vagueness and unclarity, rather than any conveying of genuine information.
Interface designers have come to appreciate that humans' readiness to interpret computer output as genuinely conversational—even when it is actually based on rather simple pattern-matching—can be exploited for useful purposes. Most people prefer to engage with programs that are human-like, and this gives chatbot-style techniques a potentially useful role in interactive systems that need to elicit information from users, as long as that information is relatively straightforward and falls into predictable categories. Thus, for example, online help systems can usefully employ chatbot techniques to identify the area of help that users require, potentially providing a "friendlier" interface than a more formal search or menu system. This sort of usage holds the prospect of moving chatbot technology from Weizenbaum's "shelf ... reserved for curios" to that marked "genuinely useful computational methods".
The classic historic early chatterbots are ELIZA (1966) and PARRY (1972). More recent notable programs include A.L.I.C.E., Jabberwacky and D.U.D.E (Agence Nationale de la Recherche and CNRS 2006). While ELIZA and PARRY were used exclusively to simulate typed conversation, many chatterbots now include functional features such as games and web searching abilities. In 1984, a book called The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed was published, allegedly written by the chatbot Racter (though the program as released would not have been capable of doing so).
One pertinent field of AI research is natural language processing. Usually, weak AI fields employ specialized software or programming languages created specifically for the narrow function required. For example, A.L.I.C.E. utilises a markup language called AIML, which is specific to its function as a conversational agent, and has since been adopted by various other developers of, so called, Alicebots. Nevertheless, A.L.I.C.E. is still purely based on pattern matching techniques without any reasoning capabilities, the same technique ELIZA was using back in 1966. This is not strong AI, which would require sapience and logical reasoning abilities.
Jabberwacky learns new responses and context based on real-time user interactions, rather than being driven from a static database. Some more recent chatterbots also combine real-time learning with evolutionary algorithms that optimise their ability to communicate based on each conversation held, with one notable example being Kyle, winner of the 2009 Leodis AI Award. Still, there is currently no general purpose conversational artificial intelligence, and some software developers focus on the practical aspect, information retrieval.
Usage in dialog systems
Chatterbots are often integrated into the dialog systems of, for example, automated online assistants, giving them the ability of, for example, small talking or engaging in casual conversations unrelated to the scopes of their primary expert systems.
Large companies such as Lloyds Banking Group, Royal Bank of Scotland, Renault and Citroën are now using automated online assistants instead of call centres with humans to provide a first point of contact.
Incorporation in smartphone apps
A chatterbot may be deployed in a smartphone app. One popular category of smartphone app that relies on a chatterbot is the dating sim or romancebot category. The 36 You Games app "Boyfriend Maker" and WET Productions Inc.'s "My Virtual Boyfriend" are popular examples. According to 36 You Games' Japanese language website, as of 13 November 2012, Boyfriend Maker (later rebranded as "Boyfriend Plus" for iOS users) was ranked the number one free iPhone app in Japan and had been among the top ten overall apps in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Such apps allow a user to carry on a textual interchange with a simulated chat partner, much as one might chat with a human partner on a date, or through instant messaging or other forms of online chat. The concept is very similar to chatting with a robot in an internet chatroom or on an internet forum. Users can chat about various topics, from school homework to song lyrics, or engage in cybersex-style chats.
Malicious chatterbots are frequently used to fill chat rooms with spam and advertising, or to entice people into revealing personal information, such as bank account numbers. They are commonly found on Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and other instant messaging protocols. There has also been a published report of a chatterbot used in a fake personal ad on a dating service's website.
In popular culture
Chatterbots have had a growing impact on popular culture. In Jack Heath's 2010 novel Hit List, a chatterbot became self-aware and used emails, text messages and electronic banking to arrange assassinations and prison breaks.
- Dialog system
- Eugene Goostman
- Interactive online characters
- List of chatterbots
- Loebner prize
- Markov chain
- Turing test
- Intelligent software assistant
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- "Boyfriend Maker scores critical hits everywhere, especially in Japan!". 36 You Games. 14 November 2012. Retrieved 26 December 2013.
- Hawgood, Alex (24 December 2013). "‘Interactive’ Gets a New Meaning: Sex Toys and Cybersex Are Enhanced by New Technology". New York Times. Retrieved 26 December 2013.
- Romano, Aja (28 November 2012). "The "Boyfriend Maker" app is as horrifying as you'd expect". The Daily Dot. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- "From Russia With Love" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-12-09. Psychologist and Scientific American: Mind contributing editor Robert Epstein reports how he was initially fooled by a chatterbot posing as an attractive girl in a personal ad he answered on a dating website. In the ad, the girl portrayed herself as being in Southern California and then soon revealed, in poor English, that she was actually in Russia. He became suspicious after a couple of months of email exchanges, sent her an email test of gibberish, and she still replied in general terms. The dating website is not named. Scientific American: Mind, October–November 2007, page 16–17, "From Russia With Love: How I got fooled (and somewhat humiliated) by a computer". Also available online.
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